Europe has always seen itself as the continent of origin of democracy. Because of the historical context in France at the time of the Revolution, democracy in Europe is deeply secular and rejects any intersection of religion and politics. So when Muslims in Europe bagan to participate on the political scene, there is only one concern that was expressed everywhere by European non-muslims: is democracy and Islam two compatible set of values? Can it be that one person claims at the same time being muslim (not only in the very private sphere but also publically) and democratic? Is the acceptance of Islam in the public sphere a danger for democracy?
The current events in the Arab World is a very clear proof that Islam and democracy are compatible. But there is also another proof: in analyzing the History of the last half century of Muslim migration waves in Europe, it is extremely clear that Muslims in Europe have always been dealing with the rest of the society through democratic means.
How have been Muslims in Europe acting democratic during the last half century?
During the second half of the twentieth century, Europe faced a major social change when, after decolonization, migrants arrived from Africa and Asia in waves. To each european country its specific history, hence its specific migrations. If we try to stay limited to muslim migrants (for the purpose of this article): Indian-Pakistanese in UK, Maghrebi-West and Central African in France, Moroccan in Spain, Tunisian in Italy, Turkish in Germany, etc. We can also add Bosniac and Albanese/Kosova migrants at the end of the twentieth century; for example Switzerland alone hosts third of the entire Kosova diaspora. Of course those are only basic trends and do not account of the full migration profiles. Each european country had its own policy in dealing with migration that evolved through decades, for better or worse. One has to distinguish here between two “extreme” cases:
- the British case : the State interfers as less as possible in internal affairs of the community, providing them even the option to solve certain type of conflicts in front of a Muslim Arbitration Tribunal (MAT)
- the French case : the State wishes to merge as much as possible all communities into one unique entity, the Republic, bound by common values, summerized as follows: “Liberté, Egalité, Fraternité“
Between these two extreme cases a significant number of variations are found. Anyway. What is interesting is that these migrants, that started more or less arriving in Europe in the 60′s, didn’t provide to the economy only labour vs. money: they established in Europe, got married (not necessarely with somebody from the same cultural background), raised children. If not the parents, the children, at least, acquired the citizenship of the “host” country, what enabled them, when reaching 18+, to vote and be actively part of the civil life. Having been in european schools, being introduced to european economy as workers and speaking in general the language of the host country (english, french, german, etc) much better than the language of the country of origin, it seemed to them very natural that they will build their life and career in Europe as fully Europeans.
What is interesting here is that muslim migrants children born in Europe remained quite attached to their roots and origins, although being fully conscious of being european. Many of them also kept a tight bound with Islam. Unlike the parents who felt they were whatsoever “from abroad”, their sons and daughters called for their rights to be guaranted. As the various constitutions were giving the same rights to all citizens, regardless of their religion, they asked for equality and for being given the opportunity to evolve through the civil life in a way that wouldn’t hurt their convictions. This covers topics as different as the end of discrimination in the labour market, authaurizations for building enough mosques for welcoming all the faithfuls, the availability at school restaurants of hallah meat for the children (basic “day-to-day life” rights) but also political rights through representation in classical political parties, visibility in the medias or recognition of colonial crimes (more or less: the right to be recognized as part of the identity of the country). On the other hand, the civil society/established powers asked to this European-Muslim generation to insert themselves as much as possible into the existing structures and follow as much as possible the existing laws, like for example accepting that the secularity of laws requires from them concessions on the dress code when working in public sector or sticking to the idea of the prevalence of the national laws on the Sharia. These two flows of demands meet in a point where they balance. The exact location of this balance point depends first on the integration policy the state applies (like the british case and french case seen above), but also of the socio-economical profile of the communities (number, cultral background, average education level, distribution over cities, etc). Generally the European-Muslims are represented by two main trends: those who believe only in assimilating totally in the “host” society by erasing all what makes them different and those who, although they want to be fully recognized as Europeans, do not want to be forced to let aside their religious and cultural specificity.
It is to notice that whatever the demands are, the European-Muslims, as citizens born in democratic countries and raised in the idea that their parents migrated to offer them an auspicious background for a better living, are claiming and asking for recognition of their rights following democratic procedures. They generally take form of:
- peaceful protests (for example La Marche des Beurs in France in 1983)
- intensive involvment in associations not specifically islamic (like for example SOS Racisme, Les Indigènes de la République, workers syndicates in UK, Turkish secular associations in Germany, political parties, etc)
- foundation of islamic institutions initiated by the community itself (Muslim Council of Britain, Islamic Council of Netherlands, etc) or initiated by the government (Conseil Français du Culte Musulman)
- active participation into the democratic debate through mediatic coverage (like the islamic scholar Tariq Ramadan or the antiracism activist Malek Boutih)
- petitions (against dismissal of employees for religious reasons)
- trials (asking for a space for prayer on the work place, recognition of a discrimination case, etc)
- boycott campaigns (brands not specifying clearly the use of prohibited food in some products)
- assiociative mutual help (when politics do not help): actions for homeless, youth educators to prevent violence, social integration through sports and art, etc
- providing private services in agreement with muslim values, with the agreement of european governments: hallal food providers, islamic banking, private schools, etc
There is also a unique but interesting case of a muslim political party in UK, Hizb et-Tahrir, clearly extremist in its points of view but in the same time “fairly” participating on the political scene by debating (the same way a right-winged political party is considered to be democratic because it accepts the “rules of the game”). All these democratic procedures have in common to be non-violent. Of course, there is also some rare cases of violent acts, although quite limited compared to the number of peaceful initiatives. These acts although restricted in number could be seen as the beginning of a breakdown between the European-Muslims and the rest of the society: assassination of Theo Van Gogh in Netherlands, the Khaled Kelkal’s terrorist acts, London and Madrid bombings, french suburban areas unrest events of 2005, violent treats after the Muhammad (SWS) cartoons controversy. These violent acts are most of the time tightly entangled with the international context such as the Algerian civil war, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, the Gulf Wars or of course the 11th of September. One has to not confuse between the violent political acts and the criminality and urban violence witnessed in poor stratum of the society and working-poor class, for the latter are not political movements; they might express loudly the despair of a community banned by the rest of the society and living difficult conditions (living in poor suburban areas, being jobless).
But whatsoever, besides those very rare examples, the European-Muslims mostly follow existing laws or fight within the democratic frame for their rights. Indeed, they are extremely present in the front line, and, it has to be pointed, if they are present through the activities listed above, they never pressured through powerful lobbies.
As a consequence, the long-debated question of the compatibility of democracy with Islam is quite non-revelant: European-Muslims have been, for now more than 4 decades, interacting with the European civil, economical, juridical and political society only through democratical means. All the rights debated, obtained or rejected have been issued by a democratic process.
Democratic European Muslims, what is their perspective?
It has to be noted also that other examples of civic causes in Europe have not always been as peaceful as the European Muslims have been: the left wing movements or the altermondialist movement for example have been into much more violent riots and acts (there is not any G8 or G20 meeting that has not been the occasion to massive vandalism), but as it is not “ethnically tagged”, it was always been much more accepted. The altermondialist leader José Bové, currently representing Europe Ecology in the European Parliament has started his political career in destroying a transgenic culture field and a McDonald’s. Such acts, labelled in Europe as “civic desobediance” seem to never be applied to European Muslims: if one of them would act like José Bové, he would be labelled as violent and retrograde; very aware of this, the huge majority of the Muslim community in Europe generally act extremely peacefully and carefully, to not harm the global cause. It is this concern of the global cause that opens the European Muslims to questions wider than their own personnal benefit in the present situation.
In some extent, the European-Muslims have influenced the generation of their parents, bringing them to the fight for their rights that have been denied to them. So is the case of the African Second World War veterans, without any official recognition nor descent wages until the young generation revealed their history on the screens and medias, or the ongoing case of the 50s-60s Moroccan railway workers underpayed and discriminated. This kind of “retroactive” democratic influence isn’t surprising: the generation of muslims born in Europe, in many aspects, acts like an interface between their parents and the host country, due to a better educational background, a better knowledge of the language and of political institutions, etc.
The current economical crisis also resulted in a rise of the right-wing parties all over Europe, achieving to reveal this growing rift between the European-Muslims, as descendants of migrants, and the non-muslim Europeans: the word islamophobia became unfortunately very common. The growing general islamophobic feeling results in a hardening in legislations: ban of minarets in Switzerland being only one example. In today’s Europe, where racist behaviours and opinions are becoming more and more normal (not only against muslims but also against other migrants, like the gipsies), the European-Muslims seem to be an isolated case of civic struggle through the decades for rights. Now, they are in a new unseen situation: they have to fight against the loss of the rights they won only years ago. For example, after making some progress in the fight against discriminations in the 80s and 90s, we see now a rise of openly discriminating behaviour. The fight for equality is never won for good; maybe it has only begun.
The North African and Middle East is living now a turn in its History: the Tunisian and Egyptian popular revolutions opened the path to democracy to the whole region. It might take years, but it is clear now that people are fighting for their rights and for the end of an unfair society. The parallel here is interesting: a Europe in loss of democracy, an Arab World in progress towards democracy. And as a link between them this generation of young European people from Arab migrant parents, and most specifically from Arab Muslim parents (as Muslims not only account for the huge majority of Arabs in Europe, especially because of the Maghrebi migration, but also they had to face much more discriminations due to their religion, giving them more expertise in the fight for justice). The Arab (Muslim) Europeans have been following with interest the events since the beginning. They felt extremely proud of the Arab youth fighting for their freedom. Amongst governments, the recent events in the Arab World were paid a high attention for geostrategic reasons, but also because of the repercussion it might have on those European Muslims: as an example, French President Sarkozy clearly avoided to welcome Ben Ali after his fall down, fearing to ignite an unrest among the Muslim community in France.
The situation might evolve to a surprising scenario: if we reach a point where Europe offers less freedom and rights to their Muslim citizens than the Arab countries, they might massively migrate back to Tunisia, Morocco, Egypt, etc. Their parents came to Europe, they might go back to North Africa and Middle East. We are already witnessing for a couple of years now an increasing number of young European Muslims working in opening business in their country of origin, transfering their expertise into the local market, creating partnerships, bringing ideas not yet implemented in the Arab World. Many times we hear from young people, born in France, UK, Switzerland or Germany: “Why wouldn’t my arab country of origin benefit from all I can bring instead of Europe that day by day denies me the right to express my personnality, my culture, my religion?”. The point here is to understand that they do not come back to the Arab World because they have no choice (having European citizenships protects them quite enough), but because they make the choice to give their added value to the country of origin. Moroccans, Tunisians, Algerians, Libyans, Egyptians, etc, that know the beginning will be difficult for them to adapt, but that want to make it. They know they are certainly going to earn less, but to live better, whilst they will participate in the local and global progress. Their parents were part of an economical migration wave, they are part of a ethical migration wave. Many of them, anyway, won’t migrate “physically” and will continue to live in Europe, but with a greatest concern of their civil role in Arab societies: most of this European Arabs carry european citizenships, but also arab citizenships, giving them the right to vote, to own in the country of origin or to represent it in International Organizations.
The European Arab (Muslim) youth and the Arab youth have many in common: education level, global awareness, similar values, similar goals and a great concern for democracy, human rights, civic rights. It would be interesting if they can benefit from each other’s experience and collaborate together to build a better and fair society, in Europe as well as in the Arab world. One one side they would fight corruption of the system, on the other side they would fight unethical exploitation of workers and ressources, in a situation that would guarantee a stable peaceful relation based on mutual benefit. They could meet in forums, establish partnerships, NGOs, transnational cooperations, exchange knowledge and open markets to each other, advise each other.
That would be a new nice kind of globalization.